Let’s hope they aren’t shooting tonight. Or anyway, let’s hope they miss. The car is a capsule, hurtling through darkness. Flyovers stitch and weave above the black hole of the lagoon. Turn up the tape. Robbery, police harassment, random shootings, the state of the roads; recklessness. They think I carry some special protection, ‘omo osho oyinbo’. Child of the white wizard.
The car heads for the Shrine. I park in a side-alley, and pick my way past the suya stalls redolent of grilling meat, the stalls selling bottled palm-wine or cold fizzy drinks, and make for the stall nearest the door. A crumpled note tossed on the table pays for a handful of spliffs along with the entry fee, and I shoulder my way into the club. The place is still half-empty, but a tension in the air speaks of countdown to Chief Priest’ s arrival. The band is playing an energetic intro to one of the old songs, the music already too loud to talk, the air thick with smoke. I lower myself onto a battered of tin chair towards the front, sat back and light a spliff.
I’ve come alone on purpose. There’s always a crowd, and tonight I feel like being part of it, the band of followers who regularly congregate here. They come only partly for the music, which has made his name overseas. They come as much to hear Chief Priest speak openly the things they only mutter over bottles of beer, their discontent pooling on unwiped tables. I guess Chief Priest’s charisma has only been made more compelling by his recent bout of detention on charges of possible sedition. I was one of the few journalists who was actually allowed to interview him in jail. It was rumoured that the authorities, confronted with a tall, rangy, slightly dishevelled Englishman, thought I was mad and therefore harmless, and let me in. The only others who made it inside were a couple of columnists on a local news weekly whose editor regularly drinks with senior state security officers. The three of us traveled to the mid-western city where Priest was being held, and visited Priest together. Apart from the usual political rhetoric which I’m accustomed to hearing, Priest used the occasion to divulge that he had found the secret of eternal youth. He was now getting younger all the time and nothing the military regime could do could stop the process. He was invincible, and when he came out he was going to perform a miracle at the Shrine to demonstrate his possession of supernatural powers. If there’s a story in it, I’m there. Don’t want to miss the miracle.
But I have another reason for wanting to be here. Six weeks ago, as I was leaving the jail after the interview with Priest, I noticed a young girl standing in the corridor holding a tin plate of food, small and slight, her breasts just points beneath her blouse, her hair natural, her clothes non-descript. It was her eyes that arrested me, large, wide and fearless, returning my look without blinking. I’m used to smart women who look me up and down, taking in the two-day stubble, open shirt, worn jeans and rugged sandals, kiss their teeth and ignore me. Or, noticing the recording equipment spilling from the pockets of my worn leather shoulder bag, become curious to know more. Or, if I’m lucky, there might be a flush of self-consciousness before their eyes drop, and I know I can offer them a drink or a lift.
This girl did none of these things, was neither superior nor curious nor impressed. Young as she was, she held herself with a striking dignity, taking on all comers with the same even stare. Intrigued, I wondered what she was doing there, alone in a place where grown men feared to go. When I asked who she was looking for, her voice in reply was low but clear and confident. ‘Na Chief Priest I for see. Every day I dey bring him chop. He no fit eat this prison food.’
The warder beckoned her toward the cell, where she deposited the plate and came out again. She walked with me and the two columnists out into the prison compound, where she accepted an invitation to go for a drink. We found a shack nearby and ordered beer. She asked for a Fanta and drank it thirstily, like a child. The two guys were joking and teasing her, asking her where she was from and why she wasn’t home with her husband. She was from a village further east, she told them, but when she heard Chief Priest was in prison close by, she’d left home, skipped school, and come to town to see what she could do. She had convinced the warders she was a relation, sent to bring food, which she cooked at her auntie’s house a few streets away. It didn’t add up. If she was a school-girl and she’d run away, her aunt would have sent her home. How old was she? Fifteen or sixteen. Chief Priest was a man in his forties, known to have a retinue of women, a prisoner of the state. To most women, he was dangerous, bad and possibly mad.
‘You no fear am?’ I asked her. ‘Chief Priest get powerful juju. You no fear wetin he for do you?’ She gave him again that appraising look, before she suddenly laughed, a high, delighted laugh. ‘He no fit do me anyting,’ she responded. ‘Chief Priest na my friend. He promise to marry me when he commot for jail, take me go Eko. I go leave this place soon-soon.’ Sam was taken aback, and it was one of the others who asked her why she wanted to marry an old man. Now for the first time she dropped her eyes. ‘Chief Priest no be old,’ she said, barely above a whisper. ‘He get powerful juju for true, wey make him strong and young. Na so-so husband I want, not one old rich man for village.’
Squinting through a cloud of smoke, I remember her words as I sit on the tin chair, waiting for Chief Priest’s entry. It’s true the man’s powerful, but it’s the power of words, of saying the things no-one else has the courage to say. Calling one of the country’s best-known millionaire businessmen ‘international tief-tief’. Calling soldiers zombies. Describing the ruling elite as ‘beasts of no nation.’ In a climate of fear and intimidation, it translates into a daring that you might call recklessness. The fact that it’s irresistible to women accounts for his reputation for sleeping with five or six women a day. I figured out long since that that’s part of the superhuman myth the man has successfully woven around himself. So why has this woman bought it? At the prison that day, alone and small but fearless, she struck me as having more to her than that. So maybe she’s just a simple village school-girl after all.
It’s after midnight. We’ve waited over an hour and I’m starting to get restless, when I become aware of an increase in tension. A sudden commotion at the back of this bamboo shack that calls itself the Shrine, heads turn as a posse of young men stamp down the aisle, and what begins as a murmur builds to a roar. Baba-o! Baba-o! The man himself, arms raised in a double clenched fist salute, his lithe thin body encased in a skin-tight electric pink jumpsuit unzipped to the waist, sweeps to the front on a wave of sound. Chief Priest has arrived. He storms the stage in a frenzy of shouting and stamping from his massed acolytes on the floor. The ritual begins.
Smoke hangs in the air, the drums build and build towards a crescendo. Chief Priest begins to talk to the crowd, about jail, about what they tried to do to him. ‘They say I smoke Indian hemp, but I tell them, the only hemp wey I ever smoke grow right here for Nigeria .’ The trademark tantalising of the audience: ‘This song call B.O.N.N.’ The laugh, before he decodes: ‘Beasts of No Nation.’ Then he starts to sing, and at the words ‘Animal can’t dash me human rights’, the whole place erupts. Everybody’s standing, dancing, woven together by the music and the magnetism of the man on stage. Then the women come out to join him, the movement of their bodies an emanation of the music, waists gyrating, backs to the crowd, stripteasing with clothes on. The mounting sexual excitement is palpable, embodied in Chief Priest himself, who struts and parades in front of the dancers. Their sexuality may be on display but it indisputably belongs to him. Madness and mastery. Whatever you think of him, the man knows how to create a spectacle - like the day he married his entire dance troupe of 27 women in one ceremony because people were calling them prostitutes.
He leaves the stage for a few minutes and the dancers take over. My eyes come to rest on one of them. Completely absorbed in the music, her face is rapt, her eyes almost closed as her body performs its sinuous winding movements. The small breasts are barely covered by a thin strip of cloth, her midriff bare and daubed with paint, her face heavily made-up with glitter highlighting the eyes and cheekbones. But I know it’s her, the girl from the jail, and a heat comes over me as I watch her. At that moment, Chief Priest returns to the stage, naked to the waist, his face, chest and back daubed with white, and leads the women in a call and response, their high reedy insistent voices counterpoising his deeper solo. In the confusion of feelings – anger, desire, pity - anger predominates. How can she be content to be one of Priest’s women? To put herself on display, to sell herself so cheap, for what? The spurious glamour of being in his orbit, the chance to hang around him in case he decides to bestow the favour of requiring her services? Through the anger, I’m conscious of another feeling – disappointment. I leave the group and head for the toilets at the back, pushing past a drunk who’s swaying across his path, stepping over the pool of urine that’s starting to seep across the raw concrete floor. The stink is so bad I gag, and make for the door, stepping with relief into the tepid night air of the street.
Outside, I light a cigarette and lean against the flimsy bamboo wall of the shack. With the smoke, I inhale the scent of frying akara, the rancid smell of stagnant drains. It’s three in the morning, and the street is alive with raucous conversation, people coming and going, cars revving, the cries of hawkers offering cigarettes, chewing gum, kola nuts, matches, aspirin. Against my back, the wooden structure vibrates to the music, led by Chief Priest’s voice intoning: ‘Human rights na my property. Animal can’t dash me human rights.’ Surrendering to the insistence of the long-drawn out climax, I close his eyes, feeling each shudder and tremor on my skin, my breathing following the rhythm of the song. Someone is breathing next to me, just out of synch. I can feel the warmth of her body against my arm, and when I open my eyes, she’s looking straight into them, with that frank and disconcerting gaze. The exaggerated make-up is gone, and with it the look of a chief’s concubine. She is herself only, and when I ask how she is, she responds gaily, without inhibition. ‘I wan come cook rice for you. You get meat for house?’
In the months that follow, Ngozi becomes a fixture in the large, half- empty apartment, coming and going at will and without warning. She arrives early in the morning, dressed for the street in a new print wrapper and head-tie, her skin glowing, her movements full of energy as she changes into the old wrapper she keeps in my cupboard. She’s happy, it seemed, just to inhabit this space, making no demands and showing no expectations. While I read papers or bang out a story, she sweeps the house, washes my clothes, fills the buckets with water, even though I keep telling her I don’t want a household slave. She laughs as if forgiving a foreigner’s breach of etiquette. Sometimes she asks for money and disappears for an hour or so, returning with bunches of fresh green leaves and dried fish, tins of tomato paste and hot peppers, onions and chunks of meat bought from the Hausa butcher. Then she performs a mysterious alchemy in the kitchen, the aroma gradually becoming so distracting I can no longer think about anything else. When I hear the thud thud thud of the pestle in the mortar, I surrender and go and watch her pounding yam, throwing the heavy pestle in the air, bringing it down with a thump that jars her body, sweat glistening on her forehead which she wipes off on the sleeve of her wrapper without missing a beat. Until she came, I had never noticed the pestle and mortar pushed against a wall. I usually buy food ready cooked from one of the sellers a few streets away, or eat in a restaurant, or get by on bread and coffee. Waiting for water to boil is all I have the patience for and the only cooking skill I possess. In contrast, her meticulous cleaning and scraping, peeling and frying and simmering, the acrid smell of hot palm oil softening into something sweet and enticing as she adds ingredients one by one, strike me as possessing the attributes of art. The rendering of yams, hard and knobbled as prehistoric roots, into the fragrant, steaming mound of pure white she puts on the table is nothing short of miraculous. Next to it, the soup shimmers under a layer of shining palm oil, tomato-red alternating with leaf-green in the depths of the rough clay bowl she brought home one day from the market. I don’t generally notice hunger, but when she cooks, I eat like a refugee. It’s only now I understand that what she offered was not subservience. Instead, I realize, it was a gift, a votive offering in a ritual of which she was celebrant and priestess.
Only rarely will she stay all night, generally making her quiet exit sometime after dark. It’s hard to get her to talk about herself, but one stifling mosquito-ridden night, one of the few times she sleeps in the apartment, both of us lying on my narrow, iron-sprung bed, she tells me what I need to know. She was proud to be one of the older girls at the school the politicians had built in her village. At fifteen, she was working towards the WAEC exams, had her eye on a typing course and maybe a job in an office in town, when her father announced she was to be married. When she found out the bridegroom was an old friend of her father’s, someone she had known all her life, whose three wives she knew, whose children were her school-mates, she cried and begged to be allowed to finish school. Her imaginings of her own future had not included being the fourth wife of an old man and staying in the village for the rest of her life. She had seen the pictures on her father’s television and knew there was more to the world than that. Elsewhere in the same country, women dressed up and drove cars to work, chose who to marry and how many children they would have. She wanted to be one of those women, not poor and ignorant and overworked like her mother. Waiting on her father and his friends one evening, she had seen pictures of a man they called Chief Priest standing outside a courtroom, his clenched fist raised, and heard a voice explaining that he was a danger to society, a currency smuggler and hemp smoker, and that he was in jail, but that he had been there nearly two years and was soon coming out. Her attention had been caught because, unlike most of the pictures, this was of someone she knew. She and her friends listened to his music on the radio, and some of them had cassettes which they danced to, singing along to the words: ‘Call a woman African woman/ She go say I be lady-o/She go say I no be woman…She go say she equal to man/She go say she get power like man/She go say anything man do/She sef fit do…’ They had to be careful, because parents didn’t approve of the songs, which heightened the pleasure and lent the music an aura of rebellion and danger. She was leaving the room when she caught the name of the prison they were keeping him in: it wasn’t in Eko, where he lived, it was in another city, in their part of the country, a city she had been to once on the bus with her mother when they went to visit her aunt who had married a man who lived there.
When it became apparent that her pleas and tears were not going to make any difference, that her father’s decision was made and nothing would change it, Ngozi came to a decision of her own. She was going to the city where Chief Priest was in prison, she was going to find him and beg him to take her with him back to Eko. The voice on the television had said he would be out of jail soon. She had heard he liked women and had many wives, but treated them well and allowed them to dance on stage in his nightclub and show their bodies and smoke cigarettes. She wanted to be a woman like that, not a farmer with a baby on her back. So she left and went to the city, walking miles out of the village to a place where she knew the bus stopped on the road and she could get on it without being seen. She had found her way to her aunt’s house with difficulty, but once there, she had told her her parents had sent her because they could no longer afford her school-fees, and could her aunt please find her something to do. It was not unusual for children to be sent to stay with family in the town, and her aunt accepted the story, especially since she herself had a business to run and had just had her third child, so she welcomed Ngozi as a god-send.